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‘Her’ takes on new direction for science fiction films

Date: 6/5/2014

By G. Michael Dobbs

A very interesting science fiction film explores what happens when a lonely man encounters artificial intelligence is featured in this week’s film review column.

Generally when most people think about science fiction films, they envision stories of space heroes and aliens. “Her” is very much speculative fiction and there isn’t a bug-eyed monster or ray gun in sight.

Instead it is the purest type of science fiction. It takes a premise that is within the realm of possibility and imagines what the ramifications of that innovation would be.

In “Her,” writer and director Spike Jonze puts forth a totally believable concept: in the not so distant future, an operating system for a computer has been developed that is an artificial intelligence. It can hold conversations with you and thinks. The question is how will people react to this new self-aware entity?

In the case of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), his operating system, “Samantha” is something of a lifesaver. Theodore is a writer who works for a company that composes custom letters for people to send to one another. While he is adept at portraying emotions in print, his trouble with intimacy in real life has cost him his marriage. Faced with signing the final divorce papers, he is socially paralyzed.

Then comes “Samantha,” the new operating system he installs. She is friendly and efficient and full of questions. She wants to know about his life, but also about life in general.

Confronted with a smart, funny and caring “woman,” Theodore is intrigued and then falls in love. On paper, this might sound incredibly desperate, stupid and a little creepy, but in the movie, it makes sense this character would react in such a way.

Samantha is growing everyday. She composes music, draws pictures and seeks new experiences. That is the nature of evolving intelligence and the crucial plot point of the picture. The question soon becomes how Samantha reacts to humanity, rather than how humanity responds to her.

Phoenix does well with his portrayal of Theodore. He’s a decent guy, but he has trouble talking about what he wants in a relationship. It would have been easy to make Theodore pitiful, but I think many people will recognize his flawed humanity as fairly normal.

Scarlett Johansson is Samantha’s voice. She is fast becoming one of our best young actresses by appearing in “big” films and then also choosing smaller more interesting projects. Her interactions with Phoenix seem very natural and I was amazed to learn she was brought into the production after shooting was complete. She essentially gives a radio performance and it’s a great one.

The design of the film is crucial to the tone of the story. Set in Los Angeles, the city looks familiar, although it has a subway and light rail system. The fashion is restrained  – no plastic miniskirts in this future – although I couldn’t help but notice that no man wears a belt. It seems a completely believable place.

That is the test of good science fiction: can its premise and setting have the internal logic to make its speculative narrative plausible and acceptable? “Her” passes this test with flying colors.